A Wake-up Call

It is often moments when the seemingly obvious is challenged that provide new insights. And so it happened with Lean IT. We had been working with lean within IT organisations for many years without really questioning why lean IT was necessary.

I was in a meeting with the IT management team of a large pension fund, facing a videoconferencing screen. At the other end of the videoconference were four people, two internal employees and members of the Lean Competence Center (LCC), and two external Lean consultants.

The pension fund had requested our support in understanding why the lean team had been quite successful in the business processes, but had failed quite spectacularly when it came to applying lean principles within the IT organisation.

“What do you do differently?” was the first question from the LCC team. This question resulted in an exchange reminiscent of a great tennis rally. Our team named the tools we use, which was followed by a quick “we do that, too” response from the LCC team. As this exchange progressed, we collectively realised that it was not the tools used that differed. Nor was it the principles, since these are universal for every lean organisation, IT or otherwise.

What is it that makes lean IT different from lean applied to IT?

Looking at the use of lean, we see an abundance of variations. In fact, initially lean was synonymous with what is now called Lean Manufacturing. As lean principles were applied in areas other than manufacturing, we saw the development of lean services, lean healthcare, lean government and, of course, lean IT. This diversification is a result of the acceptance that the context within which lean principles are applied is important in determining the way the principles are applied. In an average lean manufacturing plant, a lean practitioner will readily recognise the andon cord, the way employees can stop the production line to ensure errors are not passed forwards.

Even though the tools used in lean manufacturing and lean IT may be exactly the same (e.g. value stream mapping, kaizen problem-solving, visual management), it is necessary to understand the context for a lean practitioner to be effective within IT.

The key difference can be found in the dynamics of an IT organisation. To understand why lean IT is required, we need to look at the characteristics of IT organisations.


Characteristics of IT

What is so specific about IT, and what are the aspects that make it difficult for lean practitioners?

Rapid changes

The most obvious aspect is the fact that the capabilities within IT change at a break-neck pace. This means that there may be several ‘generations’ of technology and knowledge within a single IT organisation. As a result of the explosion of capabilities within IT, language has been developed to ensure that IT people can distinguish between the various technologies and possibilities. IT people speak their own languages and have their own culture, to such an extent that in a large IT organisation, infrastructure and application people may have difficulties understanding one another. The proliferation of jargon also leads to communication difficulties with non-IT colleagues. This is the first barrier for lean practitioners trying to apply lean principles to IT.


Secondly, IT is ‘invisible’. The visible bits of IT development and operations are basically people and hardware. But what these visible bits actually do is quite difficult to grasp. The way IT measures performance, the way we steer the IT organisation and drive results are intangible for business management. This can lead to perceptions that do not match reality. Going to the IT gemba (‘the place where the work is done’) demands an understanding of what is actually going on, and this means looking through the ‘invisibility’ of IT and understanding what really happens. The ability to see and understand what is waste and what is not is not always logical.

Diversity of Work

In an average business function, the type of work done by particular people tends to be relatively uniform. The units of work tend to resemble one another. Within IT, there are, in essence, eight different units of work: operational activities, incidents, service requests, problems, standard changes, non-standard changes, advice and plans. Each has its own time requirements and necessary work. This, in itself, is not a problem. The difficulty arises when we realize that the average IT employee is confronted with each type of work on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Understanding and managing this dynamic is quite challenging, not only for the lean practitioner but also for IT people.

IT: A Supporting Department?

A critical characteristic of the context of an IT organisation is that IT is seen as a supporting department. This is a flawed assumption on two levels.

Increasingly, IT is part of the primary process. Many business decisions or functions have been built into information systems for efficiency, consistency and/or quality control purposes. The people building and maintaining these systems are no longer just there to execute requests from ‘the business’ but are increasingly knowledgeable about the business process and can contribute intensively to the improvement and further automation of the business process.

IT is, in fact, a business-within-a-business. In contrast to other supporting departments (like HR, Legal or Finance), IT contains the full range of business functions. It develops products and services, and is expected to do its own research into what is best for ‘the business’. IT ensures that the products and services run in production, and provides support and maintenance for these products and services. IT tends to manage its own finances because these tend to be complicated, especially budgeting and cost allocation when business units use shared platforms. The HR for IT is increasingly seen as separate, specialist discipline (see the development of the e-Competence Framework). Often, IT departments need their own specialised purchasing and legal support to deal with the requirements for contracting external parties.

Altogether, IT should be viewed as more than a supporting department.


Lean tools work for IT

Fortunately for the lean practitioner, IT has not stood still and allowed its characteristics to turn it into a black box. There is a huge body of best practice frameworks and models that help to understand how IT actually works. The problem is that these invariably depict an end-state; the way IT should work. The challenge for lean practitioners is to work out how the IT organisation works today. And this is where the lean tools you know well are useful.

Experience has shown that IT organisations benefit immensely from visual management with the associated communication cascade. Defining the right Key Performance Indicators is a challenge for most IT organisations, and ensuring that managers steer the organization based on the facts that are available is an area where Lean tools are a great help. IT is used to change, lots of it. The paradox is that getting IT organisations to adopt a continuous improvement mindset is not as easy as it may seem. IT people are used to solving ‘problems’, the root causes of incidents. But instituting the behavior and attitude required to consistently improve the quality of IT products and services is an area in which most IT organisations benefit from lean principles.

Ever since the introduction of best practice models in the 80’s and 90’s, IT has realised that it needed to improve to ensure it would have satisfied customers. For many years, the approach to ensuring that IT organisations deliver what customers want was an inside-out approach. This meant focusing on defining and improving IT processes based on an industry best practice framework, or taking a controls approach to ensure that IT did the right thing.

Experience has shown that the most effective way to get IT doing what is necessary for customers, is to take an outside-in approach. This means starting by defining the customer and ensuring that the IT organisation improves to help the customer achieve their goals. This is what applying lean to IT aims to stimulate. But defining the customer of IT is not as easy as it may seem. We saw that IT increasingly is part of the primary business process. This means that the customer has moved from being an employee of ‘the business’ to being an end-customer. IT therefore directly impacts the image and profitability of businesses.


The new Lean frontier

In five years of lean IT transformations, IT is one of the areas where lean principles have been shown to have a phenomenal impact on performance and capabilities, leading to a responsiveness that ensures the customers of IT can take the steps they need. In fact, there are cases in which the business has asked the IT team supporting them to slow down, as the business was not able to assimilate all the changes, that it had requested itself.

As a result of being seen as a supporting department, IT organisations have been managed on cost. IT was always an expense, and IT people and technology were seen as expensive. The result is a focus, bordering on obsession, on resource usage. To this day, IT organisations focus on making sure there is enough work. The lean challenge has shown that focusing on flow efficiency is a huge cultural challenge that has been tackled through agile/scrum-type techniques. However, the basic principle of flow is still a long way from being common practice within IT organisations.

One lesson from years of working in IT organisations is the importance of time. Within lean, we tend to look at time from a process perspective. Within IT, we must look at time from multiple perspectives: unit of work, person, team, process and organisation as a whole.

Successful application of lean within IT requires a fundamental vision of what IT actually delivers, how it delivers services and the way IT organisations work, combined with the ability to initiate change and the knowledge to cut through the complexity of IT.

Lean requires that IT organisations focus on the customer value. It means improving processes rather than try to implement end-state processes. IT organisations must focus on achieving flow efficiency and continuous improvement to achieve the real benefits of lean. At the same time, IT needs lean practitioners who can see through the technological and organisational complexities, who understand the language of IT people and who can understand the processes and associated data in IT.


For lean practitioners seeking a new challenge, IT is the new lean frontier. In the spirit of Taiichi Ohno, let me leave you with a question for the next time you are in an IT organisation: “what is the andon cord of the IT organisation? “



About the author:

Niels Loader

As advisor to tens of IT organisations, Niels has extensive knowledge and experience in implementing IT Service Management, IT Performance Management, Lean IT and DevOps within IT organisations. In 2011, he was one of the initiators of the Lean IT Foundation certification. He is currently Chief Examiner Lean IT for APMG Lean and the lead of the Content team of the Lean IT Association.